April 1st is opening day of abalone season and it was our first dive of the year. The early morning breeze rushing in from the cove was bitter cold and I was shivering uncontrollably as Jessi and I stood naked on the beach, pulling on our wetsuits. My suit was borrowed and I was struggling a little to get it over my butt. Jessi watched me with some amusement and then reached over and tweaked my nipple.
“Ow, shit!” I shrieked.
Jessi laughed. “Cold much?” she asked.
I pressed the palm of my hand protectively to my chest and scowled at her.
This was only my fifth dive, still so new and exciting. Jessi and I were the only two divers on the beach and it felt like we owned the world as we kicked out alone, the icy water filling my suit and then quickly forming the warm thermal layer that stilled my shivers. Jessi had brought along a spear gun and I watched it swinging from the bottom of the float as I followed along behind Jessi’s strong kicks. It was the only thing I could see. Visibility at the surface was maybe two feet as the surf churned about like a washing machine.
We kicked around to where some rock formations below were making promising swirls in the tide and took a couple of test dives there. It was only about thirty feet down. The visibility was still bad, but tolerable at the bottom, only there were no abalone. I saw one small one that obviously wasn’t a clicker. On my third dive, I tried to make it all the way down to get a better look at the undersides of the rock faces. I found I couldn’t clear my left ear, so I surfaced again, frustrated because I had never taken an abalone yet and I really wanted one. I tried a couple more times in vain. Jessi signaled that she hadn’t seen anything either and that she was going to scout, my queue to watch.
There were a lot of nice fish I had seen, including one pretty big ling cod, so I unfastened the spear gun while I watched to mark Jessi’s dive. I waited a couple of minutes and finally she surfaced a good hundred and fifty yards away from me out in deeper water and signaled a thumbs up, followed by two fingers to her mask and then down. She’d found an abalone and the visibility was better. The swells were starting to pick up. I could barely see her signals. “Great!” I thought. I couldn’t dive that deep, and what was I supposed to do if she didn’t come up? Some buddy system. I signaled back a thumbs up.
The swells made it too difficult to follow her dives, and finally, I gave up. I dove down a few times until I found a nice kelp bed where I took three fish, two good-sized perch and a rock cod. I was hanging the third fish from the float when Jessi popped up like a seal on the other side of it. She unzipped her suit and pulled out two nice keepers and dropped them in the float. Then she pulled up her mask.
“How’s it going? You alright?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I popped my mask too. “I can’t get my ear to clear and I can only get down about twenty feet.”
“Start early and just keep blowing,” she said.
“I tried that,” I answered. “My left one just won’t clear and my right’s starting to hurt from trying. I’ve just been doing some fishing.”
“Okay,” she made a face. “I saw a couple more good ones. I’m going back for them.” She dropped her mask and tucked in her snorkel, kicking off already.
“What the hell am I supposed to do if you get into trouble?” I yelled.
Jessi turned back and shrugged to indicate she couldn’t hear me. She shook her head, waved me off, and she was gone.
I dove a couple more times scouting for fish and just swimming around below the visibility line sight-seeing. Suddenly, my heart skipped a beat. There under a rock was the biggest abalone I’d ever seen on a dive! The magnification made it look even bigger, a sea monster of mammoth proportions. I knew it was probably under ten inches, but the excitement was too much. It was only about twenty-five feet down. I could do this! The float was too far away and I didn’t have any mark, so I fastened the gun to my wrist, checked my iron and dove to find my rock again.
One dive, two, three… nothing. How does a whole cliff just disappear underwater like that? Finally, I kicked all the way down. If I couldn’t get down and stay down, I was wasting my time anyway. My ears barely cleared, but it was enough to get down to the bottom in a tolerable amount of pain. I searched around for a while and then with the added visibility, I finally found the rock, with my prize still clinging beneath it. “Damn! How did it get so far away?” I thought. I decided to swim over to it and kick back up from there. My lungs were pounding by the time I got there. I picked my spot, looked around for my landmarks, and kicked up.
Suddenly, I felt a tug on my hand and I started to flip sideways in the water. Kelp from a nearby bed had caught the spear gun. “Drop it and go back for it, Annie,'” I told myself. That’s the rule. I thought about how hard it had been to find this place a second time. The thought of telling Jessi I had lost her spear gun was too much and I hesitated. Instead of loosening the strap, I kicked around to straighten myself back up.
She who hesitates is lost. The tide surged and the whole field of kelp folded over the top of me, wrapping me up like a struggling fish in the tentacles of an anemone. I was out of air before I had even started toward the surface and I knew I only had seconds to live. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” I scolded myself, trying not to think about it.
Helplessly, I looked up at the surface and the life-saving air that was only another four or five feet away. I watched in dismay as the tide surged in and the sky rose away from me. It felt like I was being pulled under by mermaids. My ears were ringing, my eyes were full of the little white sparkles you get when you’ve been spinning silly and fallen to the grass. The constant, “Don’t panic, don’t panic” chanting in my head disappeared into the pounding of my heart, as it furiously tried to get oxygen from the dead air in my lungs. I looked back down below me. Another few seconds and I was going to breath seawater. I tried to relax as much as I could. I didn’t want it to hurt. I wanted my last moments to be beautiful.
A still calm came over me and I smiled as I surveyed my final resting place. I love the sea! The kelp bed was beautiful, their long stalks like an underwater bamboo forest waving in the sea breeze. There were only a few directly beneath me. Dazed, I tried counting them and then I remembered their helpless bodies strewn along the beach. I wondered if they suffered in the sand and the sun, and then I stared at the image of them in my mind. The roots were tiny. I felt consciousness slipping away and I clung desperately to it as I almost absent-mindedly reached out and tugged sharply at the stalk holding the spear gun. It pulled loose from the sand below easily! A few more sharp tugs, six, seven, I’m not sure, and I felt myself floating to the surface.
My chest was on fire and I was almost completely blind. My ears heard sounds and I let my lungs explode through my snorkel, overjoyed at the familiar hollow sound. I sucked at it for air but my joy was instantly replaced by shock and fear, as I got only a tiny taste of life followed by a mouthful of seawater I had to swallow to keep from breathing. The wave knocked my mask from my face and my snorkel from my mouth. The surges were over four feet now, and I had come up underneath one as it crested. I was underwater again, with no mask, no snorkel, and with my dizzy and half-conscious body greedily exhausting the tiny bit of air I had managed to gasp.
“Don’t panic, Annie.” I almost hated myself for being so calm, for seeming not to care that I was dying.
I knew my mask would float. I felt around and found it and put my snorkel back in my mouth. I had survived probably more than a minute now with no air left in my lungs at all. I could survive another few seconds, but if I didn’t get clean air this time, there wouldn’t be another chance. I waited an eternity until I felt the next wave pass by, blew the little wisp of air as hard as I possibly could, barely cleared the snorkel and got a little more air before swallowing another gulp of water that caused my stomach to retch.
This time, it was enough. I cleared my snorkel completely after the next wave. I took a deep breath, rolled under the water on my back and let some of my precious air up into my mask and then pushed it back into place on my face. I rolled face down again and lay floating quietly for a while, breathing, feeling the rise and fall of the waves, and trying to hold back the nausea from swallowing all that water.
Finally, I kicked upright, untangled myself from the family of kelp floating harmlessly around me and found the float. I swam to it, hugged it for everything it meant to me, and collapsed there, puking from exhaustion and from the seawater my stomach refused to contain any longer.
“Idiot,” I finally told myself. “At least you still have Jessi’s spear gun!”
I sank quietly beneath the float to attach the gun and shook my head at what I saw. A hungry seal had found the float while I fought for my life. Three shredded heads hung from the stringer where my fish had once been. I pulled them off one at a time and watched mesmerized as they settled slowly out of view into the murky depths of the cove.
© 2011 Anne Schilde